At the labyrinthine Armory Show mega-fair there is a popular nostalgic conversational topic bandied about from booth to booth, along the lines of: "Do you remember when New York art fairs were new and fresh and weird and someone was selling that up-and-coming blue-chip artist's works out of a briefcase in a hotel bathroom?" So when Verge announced that it was taking an edgy risk, branching beyond its traditional edition during Art Basel Miami Beach week to launch Brooklyn's first art fair, some idealists hoped that this market experiment in the land of food co-ops could revive some of that adventurous, questing spirit. Now that it has debuted, will we someday look back on the inaugural Verge Art Brooklyn as a cherished cultural moment? A proud Brooklynite myself, and a fan of such moments, I set off to investigate.[content:shareblock]
Arriving at one of the scattered locales at which the fair was being held, one could immediately tell that something was in the air — namely construction dust. Everything was in a state of upheaval, with artists were frantically power-drilling and nailing and sweeping their stands, and buffing off scuff marks from artworks with their sleeve and a gob of spit or whatever else was around. Gallery directors and their assistants were hyperactively scattering promotional materials and business cards all over their booths like confetti. Everywhere people were involved in a widespread and valiant attempt to make price tags, mostly listing sums below $1,000, adhere to stick-proof industrial walls.
Was this indie art heaven, or was this some kind of epic disaster? Opinions among artists and dealers varied, but by hour three or four of the fair a few things could be agreed upon: nothing had sold, and the organizers behind the fair had been downright useless and uncaring, or, according to more charitable estimations, just woefully overwhelmed. The layout of the fair was nearly impossible to take in: there are two locales for gallery exhibitors, various nondescript rooms in other buildings for artist project spaces, a cluster of gallery spaces that were somehow roped into the festivities (at least in name only), and an open-call exhibition venue a short trek away.
"It has been a little bit bumpy, and I think there have been some organizational issues," said Cue Art Foundation programs coordinator Ryan Thomas, whose booth meets visitors at the primary fair space on Dumbo's 81 Front Street. "There have been a number of people here so far this morning, although it seems to be just a lot of artists and people wandering around, and a lot of people from off the street who didn't even realize this was happening."
But Thomas said that the quality of work at Verge's Brooklyn endeavor was "pretty good" compared to New York's Affordable Art Fair and the Next fair in Chicago — two places where the Chelsea nonprofit has previously exhibited —even if the fair was "much smaller and much less structurally organized." Having encountered a free-for-all upon arrival in which everyone just picked whatever booth they wanted, Thomas was happy with their front-and-center spot. Anyway, the art that Cue has on display is "kind of light and fun, maybe things that aren't typically what you would think of in a fair," said Thomas. "It's definitely not serious Armory stuff."
This was heartening — the stuff of future nostalgic musings.So I headed in to investigate the handful of other galleries that had set up shop in the building. I tried to speak to one woman at the very back, but she spoke only Japanese, an unexpected trait among salespeople at a Brooklyn art fair. Then onto the booth of Chicago's Firecat Projects gallery, where co-owner Tony Fitzpatrick was stationed in front of many of his own charming collages. His gallery is an idealistic one — it takes zero percent of sales away from the artists —and his view of the fair was relatively rosy.
"Like any upstart fair, there are bumps and digressions, but we're doing all right," he said. "It's good that it's a fair that's kind of an underdog but is primarily based around the discourse of artists rather than dealers and interlopers and critics and slapdicks. Other fairs have changed from being about art to being about the market as a beast unto itself. That's not why I do this." Instead, Fitzpatrick does it for his artists, whom he dubbed "mutants, square pegs, screwballs, troublemakers, and malcontents."
And happily enough, Fitzpatrick told me he'd sold something. I was surprised to hear this, as most people I saw were slouched, looking bored and glum, surrounded by art labels conspicuously unmarked by red dots. When I asked what he'd sold, he chuckled: "a poster and a book." But he remained unworried. "We're not like a nascent brand-new gallery, we've got a long history of exhibition in New York," he said. "We have the advantage that we have a body of collectors, so I think we'll do okay. But we also have people coming in from the neighborhood, people who live or work in this building, and I think we'll build up more clientele brick by brick. People are happy for Brooklyn, that Brooklyn is part of the conversation."
Over at the end-of-the-earth 1 Main Street exhibitor space, Charlie Khang, the director of South Korea's Art Market & Art Dealers gallery in Seoul, was wearing a very fancy suit. He told me that his operation had shown at various art fairs around the globe in past years, as well as at Art Expo on Pier 94 in 2010. "At first when I got here yesterday I was a little embarrassed," he said, gesturing at the industrial-looking room, which was still dusty and very raw-looking. "I was expecting…well, I think this is a very typical Brooklyn style." He was in a magnanimous mood.
In the same building, Still Life Galley director Rebecca Weber lamented the "technical difficulties in coming into a building like this that's not made for fairs to begin with," but then added that she was feeling "pretty positive" after one collector put a piece on reserve. (Artist Eric Esmailzadeh Parnes who made the work in question, it's worth noting, was busy mopping the floor.) Having shown at Bridge two years ago, as well as at Berliner Liste and in Miami, Weber thought that a Brooklyn fair might offer a calm respite for dealers overwhelmed by Manhattan's Armory Week activities. And she, like Fitzpatrick, was confident that her established stable of collectors would swing by. "It's always a challenge to try to get people to come to fairs, especially if you're not in the big ones," she said. "So we really are just trying to get out there, and this is more affordable. We're taking a risk."
At 111 Front Street — an address many Brooklyn art-lovers already know as the home of galleries like Artists in Residence and Central Booking, as well as the offices of the Brooklyn Arts Council — permanent residents proceeded with business as usual, with a poster or two for the fair stuck on their windows for good measure. Brooklyn Rail critic and artist James Kalm were installing the "Brooklyn Art Now" show with the help of photographer Robert Hooman,who was organizing the installation of video and multimedia pieces. Mostly featuring work by artists who are represented by Brooklyn galleries,the survey is affiliated with the fair in a way that no one seemed able to explain, exactly. Hooman ventured that the fabulous group show was "still under the Verge fair, sort of, but with its own organization," while Kalm added that the show was "kind of organized by the people at Verge."
Maddy Rosenberg, the director of Central Booking, commented that having her gallery in a building that was being appropriated by Verge as a fair destination had, "at this point, no effects." And over at A.I.R., executive assistant Simone Meltesen confirmed that while "a lot of people are coming through today and asking me questions, when usually people don't ask me anything," they also weren't interested in buying anything. "They're more interested in the artists," she said.
Over at the artist project spaces, which cost $500 for a (supposedly) 100-square-foot booth, tensions were running higher. Artist Erica Stolller, who purchased an exhibition space after reading about the fair in the New York Times, was not thrilled by the organization. "It's been a little bit of a surprise that it's not coming together," she said. "I got in here and the paint was wet. They still haven't swept the floor. It's a little bit like being in camp, or on a cruise, or in prison. But I figure you approach it as an adventure, as an anthropologist."
Anna Stein, an artist who decided to come in from Paris for the show after having successfully taken part at Verge's Miami fair, said that this edition seemed "absolutely different" from its sibling in Florida. Artist Richard Silver placed the fault squarely with the organizers. "They're doing things today that should have been done yesterday," he said. "They were half an hour late this morning to open the doors for us. They're still cleaning up debris outside." He added, "There are people coming from all over the world to do this art show — France, Chicago, Tokyo — and there's a sculptor out there freaking out because we were promised 10 feet by 10 feet and we got 4 by close to 10."
As I headed out, I bumped into another artist who was hanging Verge Art Brooklyn signs in the elevator, to alert people to the presence of exhibiting artists upstairs. "If I don't hang them, who will?" she asked me. "I just hope they don't take them down." Amid such Beckett-worthy frustrations and general chaos, it seems unlikely that people — the harried, assailed organizers included — will look back on Verge Art Brooklyn's debut with nostalgia, or look forward to a hypothetical second edition with enthusiasm.